Monday, January 21, 2008

Consequences by Penelope Lively

Can even a great writer sum up a life, a lifetime, in a single book. And even if one could, is it a wise thing to try? Penelope Lively, in her novel Consequences, is looking back to 1935, to World War II, and then panning forward—to the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, and on to Viet Nam and beyond. I can feel her need to overview, to try to make some sense of the chaos and bloodshed and strife, to provide both critique and some form of hope for the future.

While I understand this urge to say it all, to cover all the events of the last hundred years, at least for me as a reader, I find that most really good novels cover relatively short periods of time and not too many characters. Of course, in describing a few days, a year or two, even a decade, one can with the lens of memory cover large expanses of time while still engaging the reader in a here-and-now tale. Lively’s masterpiece, Moon Tiger, does just that. An old woman lies dying in a rest-home, simply a wrinkled, unimportant figure to the bustling nurses and aids who call her ‘honey,’ and treat her as child. But she doesn’t care, for the present is no longer of any importance to her, only the past and the life she has lived, as a historian, a parent, a writer.

But in Consequences (her most recent and probably her last) novel, she tries to whirl us through almost a century, introducing a host of characters as she goes along. I have to admit that for at least the first hundred pages I was slightly irritated and lost. Why this skipping over of years, decades? Why introduce us to an infant only to begin the next chapter with that infant grown to adulthood? She seems simply to be trying to do too much, losing the intimacy she usually achieves by focusing down and in on a short time, a few characters, and through them back and out. Finally, when I stopped reading this novel piecemeal and decided I must live in for a day or two if I hoped to understand what this last effort is about, I began to see her genius as a writer, a recorder of history, emerge.

It seems in many ways a simple story, at least the pivot-point of the novel, a tale about an artist whose medium is woodcutting and his rather sudden and impulsive marriage to a girl from an upperclass and hopelessly snobby family. Shunned by her family, the two lovers escape from London and the girl’s stodgy, privileged life to the countryside and a deserted, tiny farm-laborer’s cottage. The two, much in love, restore the cottage and begin to raise a family, only to have that life ended abruptly by the war and the soldier death of the young husband.

And so begins a long journey of both places and characters—not only the life of the widowed woman, but of her children, and their children, and beyond. As is usual for Lively, she not only dances from character to character, but speaks through each of them—usually through the mouths of women characters, but even now and then a convincing male voice. Along the way, we get a view of Lively’s view of art, of book-printing, of poets and conferences of poets, of marriages both good and bad, and always with the reminder of how much our lives are determined by happenstance, chance, rather than by choice or grand life-plans. A chance encounter that leads to marriage, a fall on the ice or a traffic accident—chance so much more important than plans or purposes.

Time, the flow of time, the treachery of memory, the necessity to live in past, present, and future all at once—this fascination with time and its meanings is to be found in all of Lively’s work, and in this retrospective an attempt to sort and understand. In the past year or two I have read similar looking-back, summing up novels by some of my favorite authors. Carol Shields’ final novel Unless, Mary Gordon’s Pearl—both full of politics, of social criticism, and some attempt to point towards a better future. I see so clearly the desire of the authors both to do commentary on the wars and greed and bloodshed of the past century, and also to energize us towards action into the future. Yes, it has been an ugly century dominated by war and greed, but still we must look to the future, put our shoulders to the wheel, and do something for our children, for the children of the world.

I can’t hope to do justice to this novel that covers a lifetime or to the voice of Lively who speaks through it, and while I do not think (in the end) that it is a great novel (partly because it does try to do too much), I think it is a very good one, and one that readers with a social conscience should read. I won’t try to sum up her political views or her views on aesthetics, but I think she tries to do so through a few of her characters. For now, I will simply read you a longish quote, and hope that you will go to the novel yourselves. It is not a long novel (less than three hundred pages), but it is incredibly dense, both with characters and events.

The winter of discontent gave way to the spring and summer of A levels, cultural endeavor and Ms. Thatcher. Ruth worried about Wordsworth, the Tudors and Stuarts, and the roll of puppy fat around her midriff; Molly fielded a touring opera company in Orkney and the Shetlands, and a craft exhibition in Manchester, and fine-tuned the arrangements for the poetry festival. In the background, a woman with an iron coiffeur and awesome insistence began her long dominion of the nation’s affairs.
Molly voted Labour, naturally. Always; regardless. So did everyone she knew. It seemed surprising that there could be Conservative electoral victories when you yourself had barely ever heard of anyone voting Tory, and even more so in that, when you thought about it, you realized that there must be millions of working-class people who voted Tory, which seemed somehow like shooting yourself in the foot. Why ever did they do it? And now, just when you should be rejoicing at the first Woman Prime Minister, she came in the form of this dogmatic harridan with her handbags and her pussy-cat bows.
But if you looked beyond these shores, complaint seemed churlish. In the course of work, Molly had come across artists exiled from their homelands—people who had fled, or whose parents had fled, because circumstances were beyond tolerance, smoked out of Russia or Hungary or Czechoslovakia or wherever. Beside such histories, some local carping about the power of the trade unions or Mrs. Thatcher’s bossy persona became positively obscene……Those who live out their lives in a politically stable country, in peacetime, have not had history snapping at their heels.

This novel is a too quick ride through too much time, but with the brilliant Lively as tour-guide, it is a worthwhile read. I only wish I could say so much about so many topics over so many years.

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